Statisticians say a total solar eclipse happens at any given spot on the Earth about once every 375 days. But on Monday, the awe-inspiring mid-day midnight is ours alone. Dubbed “The Great American Eclipse” because it will cross diagonally over the contiguous United States from Oregon to South Carolina and be visible in other nations only as a partial eclipse, it’s that rare event that has the potential to bring millions of Americans together in a single, shared experience.
It will be a fleeting moment – two minutes and 40 seconds at most – and since the 70-mile-wide path of totality won’t come any closer than about 200 miles from the Triangle, a lot of people decided months ago to let it pass.
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But hype, and hope, are powerful, and now the naysayers are having second thoughts. The weather forecast suggests partially clear skies in the path of the total eclipse as it passes through extreme southwestern North Carolina and the middle of South Carolina. Two hundred miles, even if the traffic is terrible, is less than a tank of gas. And if you neglected to buy NASA-approved eclipse-viewing glasses, you can still make a pinhole projector, turn your back and watch the spectacle unfold on a paper printout of the country.
We’re Americans. If we can’t seize the moment – at the very last moment – who in the world can?
Q: Are there still places to stay in the path of totality in North or South Carolina?
A: Most hotels, inns, Air BnB’s and campgrounds filled up weeks ago, so unless you’re lucky and have a friend with a pull-out couch or find a place that just had a cancellation, you’re unlikely to land overnight accommodations. The exception is if you’re willing to bring your own. If you have a tent and don’t mind sleeping in a stranger’s back yard or empty lot, there are some “campsites” available through hipcamp.com. Prices vary, but can be as little as $20 a night.
Q: When is the best time to go?
A: The total eclipse will begin in southwestern North Carolina at about 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 21, and will will end just outside Charleston, S.C., around 2:45 p.m. To be in place to watch it, planners suggest allowing double the travel time the trip normally would require. That means a run to Sylva, which is having an eclipse party to celebrate its 1 minute 47 seconds of darkness, could take nearly 9 hours of driving, one way. Sumter, S.C., also hosting a watch party, would be a mere six-hour haul, one way.
Q: Where is the best place to go?
A: Anywhere in the path of totality. Outside the path of totality, it will be difficult to discern anything happening at all, even in areas where the eclipse is 90 percent or more, because the brightness of the sun that is left exposed blots out the effect. Amy Sayle, an educator at the Morehead Planetarium at UNC, says, “It’s the difference between riding in the airplane and jumping out of it.”
Dozens of N.C. and S.C. cities and towns are within the path. Columbia and Charleston both have large numbers of events planned, but they also expect large numbers of people. Many of their events require tickets, which are sold out. A better bet is a rural community accessible by a back road because Interstate 40 in North Carolina and I-95 between here and South Carolina will be jammed.
In some communities, churches and schools are serving as gathering places and will allow parking, some for a fee.
In North Carolina, officials warn that such places as Dupont State Recreational Forest have very limited parking, and that parking on the sides of roads is unsafe and in many places illegal.
Q: How should I prepare?
A: Leave with a full tank of gas and don’t let the tank get too low; the last thing you want is to run out in the middle of a traffic jam. Drivers are urged to arrive early, stay put to allow traffic to start moving, and leave late. To make that possible, stock the car with plenty of drinks and snacks.
Carry some cash to pay for parking if there is a fee. Take a paper copy of the state road map, available at rest areas and welcome centers, or download one. This will help you reroute if the highway and the interstate are clogged at the same time.
Pack chairs or blankets, bug spray, sun screen, and eclipse glasses or a pinhole projector.
Q: If I can’t travel, what will I be able to see?
A: In Raleigh, the effect of the eclipse is likely to be minimal. But NASA will be live-streaming it from noon to 4 p.m. You’ll be able to see that live stream at newsobserver.com. Coverage will include images from 12 locations, using airplanes, ground telescopes and 57 high-altitude balloons. To share the experience, attend an eclipse viewing party. We’ve got a list here: http://nando.com/4uy.
These are the NC towns in the path of totality for the eclipse:
There S.C. towns are in the path of totality for the eclipse